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Tuesday, December 7

Story Rulez: Things Every Story Needs to do

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My critique partner Juliette wrote a post today on following the rules of writing, and while we were talking about it this morning, it led to a discussion about the rules of story. I thought it would make a fun companion piece to hers, so here we go.

I'm a big fan of the story. If I had to chose between a great story and great writing, I'd take story every time. Because without a great story, who cares about the writing? I've seen wonderfully written manuals, but that didn't make me want to curl up with them in front of a fire. 

I've gotten myself into some debates over which is more important to a new writer. Should they focus on improving their writing or their story? To dip into Juliette's post a bit, I think that knowing the rules is important. Writing is a skill, and there's only so far you can go with raw talent. At some point, you'll need to know what you're doing. But I also think that no matter how good a writer you are, if you're not a storyteller, you won't go that far either. Most people don't pick up a book because the author is technically skilled. They pick it up because it sounds like a good story.
So, provided you have the technical skills (after all, writing so bad that a reader can't follow it will kill even a great story), what does a great story have to do? Once they have those technical skills, what rules does a writer need to follow?

1. Hook the reader
2. Entertain them until the story is over

That's it. Seriously. It sounds so easy, but this is probably the number-one reason most well-written books fail. It's why my early novels failed to get me an agent or sell to a publisher. It's probably why a lot of trunk novels are still trunk novels.

But let's look a little closer at these rules.

Hooking the Reader

You'll find a ton of information on how to do this out there. But basically, you hook a reader by offering them something that makes them curious enough to keep reading. You make them care. They want to know more, see what happens, spend more time with this character, see what develops in this world, explore this premise some more. All are ways in which you can hook a reader. For every "you must" rule, someone can (and often does) show you an exception to that rule and uses it as proof that the rule is wrong.The rule probably isn't wrong, there are just so many ways to do something that one rule can't cover it all.

Now, there are some ways that consistently work.

1. Introduce an interesting character with a problem.

This probably sums up a vast majority of novels out there. Someone with a problem. The book follows that person until the problem is solved. The readers cares about both the character and the problem.

2. Introduce a compelling situation.

Some topics are fascinating, and we don't care all that much about the characters at first. We want to see more about this cool idea. But as soon as the shine is off the apple, we want a story to go with that cool idea. The reader cares about the idea.

3. Introduce an intriguing character with a unique perspective.

You'll also hear "start with a great voice" but it's kinda the same thing. The person telling the story is so charismatic that you'll hang with them for a bit to see what they do. The reader cares about the character.

No matter how you hook your reader, the next rule is the really hard one.

Entertaining Your Reader to the End of the Story

This entire blog is devoted to doing that. There's no formula (though there is a reliable structure that works well), no one way, no plug and play outline. You just keep offering something the reader finds interesting and keep them wanting more. How you do that is up to you.

There are some consistently helpful ways for this as well.

1. Give the story goals worth striving for.

Create a carrot to encourage the reader to keep reading. Even in books that are about a time in someone's life, and don't have a big story goal, there are still things they're trying to do. Stories aren't about people watching.

2. Give the story stakes that matter.

Something is making us want to see what happens next. The whole reason we want to see the outcome of the goal is because of the consequences of that resolution. High stakes, low stakes, end of the world or quiet and reflective, as long as we want to see how it turns out, we'll keep reading.

3. Give the story a character worth following.

Stories are about people. Even in hard sci fi where the science is at the core, it's the people who are driving that scientific exploration. That science has human repercussions that make us curious. (otherwise we'd just read a scientific paper on the subject) Make the character someone that intrigues. They don't have to be good or even likable if there's something about them that makes us want to know more. They just have to capture our attention and curiosity.

Again, it comes down to making the reader care. If they care, they'll keep reading. If they don't, they'll stop. 

If you focus on telling a great story, you'll stand a better chance at creating a great story. Because you'll have something that makes us care, and a reason to keep turning those pages.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Great post. I think you're right. No matter how well we write technically, if we don't hook the reader, agent, and publisher and tell an entertaining story, it won't work. As usual, you break it all down so clearly. Thanks.

  2. Janice: Love these recent posts about story and plotting. Very helpful, thank you. Can't wait to read more!

  3. This is great, Janice! What a great complement to my rules piece. And good advice too...

  4. Another useful post. Just what I need to improve my so-called novel, in progress (I hope). I bookmarked this one too >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  5. You may it sound oh so easy! I think the trouble is finding ways of making your own story interesting to other people. Tapping into the global issues. I guess that's why so many genres become formulaic.

    We're still trying to explore the same themes through the novel format over and over again but few novels can give us that sense of epiphany, that sense of resolved theme, that we crave. So we keep buying similar books in the similar craze until we just get sick of them!

  6. Storytelling is almost as hard as technical writing, at least for me. But yes, the story can keep a reader despite less than brilliant writing. I keep going back to The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, even though the writing itself is not the best, because the story is intriguing. (An 80 year old grandmother, bored with life, goes to the CIA and volunteers to be a spy.) Her line about why she went to the Pentagon still makes me chuckle. (paraphrased since I don't have it in front of me.)

    Agent: You don't volunteer to the CIA; they look for you.
    Mrs. Pollifax: Well, how are they supposed to find me in New Brunswick, New Jersey?

  7. Natalie: Most welcome! There's so much gray and overlapping areas, but everyone can name at least one book they read that was badly written, but they had to k now how it ended anyway. That shows the power of story.

    Stephanie: Thanks!

    Juliette: You gave me the idea, girl :) So thank you!

    Cold As Heaven: If you keep working, it'll improve.

    E. Arroyo: Thanks!

    Shannon: It sounds easy, but we all know it isn't. I think you nailed it. Finding a way to make our stories interesting to other people. Universal themes is a way to do that, and often work, but it can start to get old after a while.

    Jaleh: My mother loves Mrs.Pollifax. I haven't read those books yet but I want to (after deadline) It's such a delightful premise. I'm actually surprised no one has made a TV series out of it yet. Seems like a natural.

  8. A TV series of Mrs. Pollifax would be fantastic. Even a movie of the first book would be fun. Now I'm going to be contemplating actors and actresses for the parts. :D

  9. Wonderful advice and great for me to keep in mind as this little seed of an idea I have is starting to sprout...

  10. The fact is, if you succeed BOTH as a storyteller (art) and writer (craft) it's a win-win for everybody, despite recent examples of huge numbers of readers being hooked into a story that resonated with them, written by a rank amateur (you know what teen vampire romp I'm referring to). But I really think Twilight (oops--I spilled it!) is an outlier--an exception to the rule. If you're really serious about writing, you should be honing both your storytelling AND writing skills.

    No one ever said it was going to be easy!

  11. I realize this thread is *really* old, but I just wanted to drop a note that the story of Mrs. Pollifax WAS made into a movie, starring Angela Lansbury.

    1. Good to know, thanks! That would have made a fun series, actually.